From Pulitzer Prize–winning American historian Joseph J. Ellis, the unexpected story of why the thirteen colonies, having just fought off the imposition of a distant centralized governing power, would decide to subordinate themselves anew.
We all know the famous opening phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this Continent a new Nation.” The truth is different. In 1776, thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent states that only temporarily joined forces in order to defeat the British. Once victorious, they planned to go their separate ways. The triumph of the American Revolution was neither an ideological nor a political guarantee that the colonies would relinquish their independence and accept the creation of a federal government with power over their autonomy as states.
The Quartet is the story of this second American founding and of the men most responsible—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. These men, with the help of Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, shaped the contours of American history by diagnosing the systemic dysfunctions created by the Articles of Confederation, manipulating the political process to force the calling of the Constitutional Convention, conspiring to set the agenda in Philadelphia, orchestrating the debate in the state ratifying conventions, and, finally, drafting the Bill of Rights to assure state compliance with the constitutional settlement.
Ellis has given us a gripping and dramatic portrait of one of the most crucial and misconstrued periods in American history: the years between the end of the Revolution and the formation of the federal government. The Quartet unmasks a myth, and in its place presents an even more compelling truth—one that lies at the heart of understanding the creation of the United States of America.
Few can tell a historical tale as well as Ellis, as many readers will be aware from his eight previous studies of the Revolutionary War era (Revolutionary Summer, etc.). True to form, here he reviews this short but important time in America's history through the eyes of its major figures George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison rather than offering an analysis of the weighty interval between the nation's failed first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and the ratification of the second (and successful) constitution and its first 10 amendments, which we now know as the Bill of Rights. Ellis's approach employs deft characterizations and insights into these politicians and philosophers, who bested their opponents by "imposing their more expansive definition of the American Revolution" on the American people. With his usual skill, Ellis brings alive what otherwise might seem dry constitutional debates, with apt quotations and bright style. There may be equally solid surveys of "the second American Revolution," a term Ellis borrows from other historians, but this one will be considered the standard work on its subject for years to come. It lacks the fresh interpretations and almost lyrical prose of Ellis's previous books, but it's a readable, authoritative work.
I learned a great deal from Ellis' overview of the goals and hurdles of the four key figures working to produce a groundbreaking constitution. His careful and interesting descriptions of the infighting between dedicated politicians--each with his own regional interests at stake--helped me see the roots of states rights positions in various conflicts in modern times. I am not a historian, but I now have a fuller view of the roots of gun control and anti-tax issues, to name a few, because Ellis sets a full stage of American emotions after the colonies freed themselves from the British monarchy.
This book sheds light on our current political situation by showing that the conflicts we see today were present at the beginning. In fact it points out in stark relief the built in paradox between federalism and individual autonomy.
An Outstanding Introduction to the History of Our Constitution
By "Introduction" I don't mean that this book is basic or simplified. Rather, Prof. Ellis introduces information about the Constitution and its origin that is not taught in most American history courses and which should be required, if only for members of Congress and the Supreme Court. In particular, those Americans who rant about "original intent" should be required to memorize Jefferson's eulogy. All in all, The Quartet is an outstanding contribution to the study of American history.